Expedition Diary: Inside a Rain Forest Quest

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Thirty seconds into the hot shower, a stream of dirty water runs down the drain. It takes with it the mud, changing my skin from blotchy gray to pink, uncovering the forgotten scrapes and cuts, and exterminating the thriving ecosystem of bacteria and fungi—each with its own distinct and pungent smell—to which my skin has been playing host.

This is exactly when one has the first dangerous notion that the last days or weeks might have been fun. Shortly thereafter, selective memory kicks in, and it's only a matter of time before one has signed on for another punishing, exhilarating expedition.

December 2002

Most adventures start with packing one's gear and heading to the airport. I correct myself: This is not how this adventure begins.

The search in remote and unexplored Brazilian mountaintops for one of the world's rarest birds begins in my comfortable, air-conditioned Duke University laboratory in North Carolina.

Professor Maria Alice dos Santos Alves, of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I are sitting in front of a large computer monitor. On screen is a satellite image of the State of Rio de Janeiro.

With layers of data superimposed, the image tells us that one of the biologically richest areas of the planet has been barely explored. Someone has to go—not "because it's there"—but precisely because in short order it may not be.

The software also predicts where we should find the gray-winged cotinga (Tijuca condita). Actually finding the cotinga—the purpose of Maria Alice's upcoming expedition—would be a huge step toward establishing the use of computer models as viable tools for determining what areas should be protected.

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

After a brief August trip to Rio to scout locations by helicopter, Maria Alice, having secured a National Geographic research grant, invited me to join her expedition in December—mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

One afternoon, I load my backpack as low black rain clouds blow across the North Carolina sky. Just like a summer's day in the north of England where I grew up and where I learned my field craft.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Outside Rio de Janeiro, Maria Alice, her graduate student Alline Storni Rocha, and I lunch improbably in a luxurious home on the Fazenda Itatiba ("Itatiba plantation") high in a valley a few miles from our intended camp.

The helicopter we've secured to take us into the bush cannot carry everything we need in one trip, but will ferry the team and equipment in short trips between the fazenda and the camp.

I just wish the pilot wasn't wearing shiny black shoes, pressed black trousers, and a white, starched shirt with epaulettes that vaguely suggest a naval uniform. I fly on helicopter surveys all over the world each year. Most pilots wear fatigues or tattered shorts, repudiate fashion, and have flight helmets that sport small insignia that hint of a previous life ("Da Nang," for example) that one never brings up in conversation.

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